West Virginia: Glass Workers

Child Labor in the American South: West Virginia: Glass Workers

Thomas Weikle

Child labor during the turn of the 20th century was a very heated topic.  Regarded as a serious detriment to children, many sought to change laws and regulations that allowed children to work in such harsh conditions.  Those who wanted to change these laws created many organizations and campaigned both locally, but also on the state and federal levels.  While the use of child labor was not limited to the South, it was in the South that had some of the most egregious conditions and used the most child labor in their industries.

        In the South many states use child labor for its many industries for jobs that require a person of smaller stature to perform.  West Virginia is a state that uses child labor in its mining camps and glass factories, the two major industries located within the state.  The state ranks 35th out of 48 states in the United States regarding its child labor laws, while many states that contain the same industries as West Virginia have much better child labor laws (NCLC Pamphlet #86).  West Virginia's standards for child labor follow many of the federal mandated laws during the first decade of 20th century and many children, under the age of 14, work at the glass factories when school is not in session.  There was no law that required factories to provide proof of age of the children who worked within the factories, making it much easier to hire children who were well below the federal mandated ages, and the manager of the plant only required parental permission for the child to work if he or she was 14 years old (NCLC Pamphlet #142).  Because there was only one man, the commissioner of labor, to enforce the federal laws for the entire state of West Virginia, while most states had dozens of inspectors to oversee all industry operations (NCLC Pamphlet #86).  Often time's children under the age of 12, the legal age limit for child labor, were put to work in the glass factories (NCLC Pamphlet #86).  One man could not regulate effectively the entire state, so many federal laws were not enforced and the use of child labor ran rampant throughout the glass factories of West Virginia.

The boys who worked in the glass factories worked long and strenuous hours at jobs which required cramped conditions for long periods of time.  The boys also worked for hours in the sweltering heat of the furnace rooms, which were extremely hot during the summer months when the majority of child labor was used.  The factories were primarily located in the northern and western parts of the state and were separated into three divisions.  The first being those that created window glass, the second being those who created cast and rolled glass and the third and final being those that made bottles and table wears.  The first two divisions were the most labor intensive and because of this there was no child labor used, making the third division the primary user of child labor.  There were four main jobs in the glass factories that used boys as a majority of the labor.  The boy who opens and closes the iron mold for the blower is the "holding-mold boy" (NCLC Rural).  The second job required the boy to stand beside the presser and receive the tumblers from the large mold on a little try was called the "ketchin-up boy" (NCLC Rural).  The third job was for the boy who seized the blown or pressed objects with a long iron rod and holds them in the flame of the glory hole, which is the hole for firing the piece of glass before passing it on to the finisher, and was called the "sticker-up boy" (NCLC Rural).  The final job was for the boy who takes the finished objects from the finisher to the annealing oven for the final firing of the object and was called the "carrying-in boy" (NCLC Rural).  These jobs required long hours and cramped conditions, especially for the holding-mold boy, who sat on a small unpadded seat for hours before he was relieved for a break.  The boys who stood near the furnaces often succumbed to heat strokes because of the intense heat blasting from within, and would also be required to either stoop over or squat in a cramped position to access the glory hole (NCLC Pamphlet #152).  The sticker-up boy was often covered in soot and would close his eyes because of the intense heat.  There were girls who worked in the glass factories, most worked in the packing rooms sitting on the floor as they packed away the days objects into boxes for shipments.  Very young girls could be employed to work the packing rooms because the work was less labor intensive.  However, the young boys and men who worked in the factories along side of the girls were not know for their clean and wholesome language, the girls were exposed to immorality and bad influences whenever they worked (NCLC Pamphlet #142).  While they worked long hours like the boys, their jobs were much less strenuous.  Most of the boys would work on a schedule where they worked the morning shift for a week and then switched to the night shift for a week.  Those who worked the evening shift would often be let off work after 3 A.M., who would wait hours for a car to take them home and then could be seen on the streets as early as 9 A.M. the same morning, the lack of restful sleep wore down the young boys who required many more hours of sleep than they were getting (NCLC Pamphlet #152).  To remain awake throughout the night the boys claimed that they chewed tobacco (NCLC Pamphlet #142).  In West Virginia there were no laws that forbid factories from working children at night time hours, as most states did in the U.S. (NCLC Pamphlet #157).  Because of the long hours and extreme conditions the boys suffered restlessness and heat stroke, which would greatly affect their overall effectiveness while at work.  There were around the turn of the century developments with machine blowers and other machines that would become very effective tools in factories that many factories in West Virginia lacked, or the managers refused to use because they were new technologies.  However, over time the managers would realize their effectiveness in turning out a larger production which meant more revenue and required fewer labors, in the long run saving the factory money.  These inventions came too late for many children who had lost their childhood working the factories.  With such conditions in the West Virginia glass factories, children were robbed of a decent child hood and would suffer the consequences of long strenuous hours later in life.

It is the greed of the parents and the indifference of the managers of the factories that deprive the children of an education.  An education that would have provided them with not only a greater intelligence, but possibly with better wages and a greater efficiency they would have attained had they attended school.  Ignorance on the part of the parents and on part of the public in general, who either lack the knowledge of child labor laws, the parents, or lack the knowledge that child labor was a serious issue in the rural south, the public.

Boys At Lehr. Glass Works:

Ovens of glass works (so intensely hot that they were dubbed glory holes) were built near the ground so that small boys could reach them easily.  Most of these boys worked on the night shift alternate weeks.

Glass Blower and Mold Boy:

Boy has 4 ½ hours of this at a stretch, then an hours rest and 4 ½ hours more: cramped position.  Day shift one week: night shift next. (Grafton W.VA.)

"Carrying-in Boy" At Lehr Glassfactory:

His duty is to carry on a long asbestos shovel from the glass blower to this oven, newly made glass objects that must be reheated before they can be finished.  Several miles are covered by these boys in one night in the excessive heat of the glass factory.

Midnight In A Glass Works in Grafton, WVA:

Boys at the "Glory Hole" where object is reheated before going to finisher.

Girls In Packing Rooms:

Central Glass Co., Wheeling, WVA.  Several very young girls pack here.